The land yachts of the ‘50s and ‘60s have evolved into something much more high-tech in today’s models, and the rate of advancement in terms of smart car technology and artificial intelligence has reached a tipping point and is quickly accelerating. Today’s automobile is more computer software than it is grease and oil, and in the very near future the balance of power in the auto industry will shift. Heavy manufacturing will always be a big part of the industry, but it will be driven more and more by Silicon Valley, software companies, and technology innovators.
The Future of Smart Cars
They may not be able to move through time when they reach 88 miles per hour, but they can do almost everything else. Torc Robotics CEO Michael Fleming, whose exciting self-driving technology gained attention as early as 2007 when they developed a self-driving software stack for Virginia tech as part of the DARPA Urban Challenge, sees two different paths for the future of this disruption: “One path will be a continued increase in driver assist functionality incorporated into consumer vehicles. We already see this today with adaptive cruise control, and I believe this will expand to autonomous highway driving that requires driver oversight. SAE International defines this as level 2/3. The second path is more of a car-sharing, self-driving taxi or bus that is limited to a certain area. This second path requires a higher level of self-driving technology and no driver oversight. SAE International defines this as level 4/5.”
Yinon Weiss, CEO of CarDash.com, believes the future of smart car technology is all about convenience. According to Weiss, “Technology will make it so that you never have to deal with the difficult parts of car ownership, such as scheduling maintenance or having to take in your car for service. Connected cars will know what they need before problems happen and will be able to schedule their own appointments for you, or even drive themselves to be maintained during non-peak hours.”
Futurists understand that the future of smart cars is already here. Steve Wells, COO of Fast Future, sees 3D printing playing a big role in the near future, representing a major factor in the disruptive shift. “3D printing represents a potential game changer for the automotive industry, not just in manufacturing, but also in service and maintenance,” said Wells. “Take the example of a 3D-printed car with 50 components compared to a current-day car with 5,000. Firstly, there are fewer components to go wrong. Not only that, we would see components manufactured at the service centers when replacements are required. The component specification could be downloaded from the manufacturer’s database and printed on the service center’s printer.”
How we, and how service personnel interact with cars will also change, with hands-on, under-the-hood tinkering taking second place to a software interface. Foresight researcher Maria Romero, also from Fast Future, says, “User interface will be the key for the future of smart cars. UI customer support could become the main issue with these vehicles. Repair shops would need to focus their services on UI to be able to respond to the rising demand.”
No More Grease Monkeys
As cars continue to evolve, the role of auto maintenance and repair will evolve along with them. While some traditional mechanical issues will still need to be addressed, the broader role of repair shops will change. Torc Robotics’ Michael Fleming notes, “The traditional mechanical and electronical maintenance issues will continue to play a role in repair shops. Repair shops do, and will continue to do, conduct software maintenance. As more wireless communication is integrated into consumer cars, software maintenance may shift towards remote maintenance where a centralized team can service cars throughout the world. While this may shift some software maintenance away from repair shops, I believe it will create opportunities for repair shops to provide consumers with better service and lower operating costs. Imagine a car automatically providing a diagnosis to the repair shop, and allowing it to determine the problem and order parts to fix the issue before the car even arrives at the shop.”
Fast Future’s Maria Romero predicts a major shift in the nature of auto repair, saying, “With less to maintain and AI monitoring the car’s performance constantly, less time and money would be necessary for maintenance. Physical repair shops would be rare and centralized. AI-to-AI online assisting would be the norm. A specialized self-driving repair fleet would attend major cases wherever the vehicle is at.”
Aaron Steinfeld, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, notes that these sorts of advancements are already happening. “I think there will be increased attention to software maintenance as vehicles become more electric and have more advanced driver assistance and safety systems,” said professor Steinfeld. “The question is whether software maintenance will be done by local shops or through over-the-air updates. Tesla is an example of the latter.”
David Gauze, Advertising Manager of AutoBodyToolMart, which has been supplying equipment, paint booths and other items to auto shops for 30 years, has already seen the nature of repair shops change dramatically during that time. “Auto repair shops will become much more automated, and connected to the ‘internet of things,’” said Gauze. “There will always be a hands-on element to auto repair, but the age of just opening up the hood and taking a look around to see what’s wrong is over. Diagnostics are already done by computer, and as cars become more software-driven, repair shops will be able to get a more precise diagnosis of the issue immediately, and often remotely.”
The Automotive Tipping Point
The automotive tipping point may already be here. Fast Future’s Rohit Talwar sees automobiles becoming a bigger part of the internet of things, saying, “Smart vehicles could do traffic management between themselves in a dynamic network. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and eventually, vehicle-to-everything (V2E) communications could be built into the Internet of Things, which would mean data sensors everywhere.
Professor Steinfeld also sees that in many ways, the future is already here. “We are already seeing AI used in autonomous vehicle perception and decision making,” said Professor Steinfeld. “Many successful perception tasks utilize AI methods to generate semantic labels, like interpreting whether an object is a pedestrian or a bicyclist. Also, deciding when to deviate from the explicit rules of the road requires complex computation.”
This tipping point may mean dramatic and positive changes for the auto industry and the software industry alike, and of course, greater convenience for consumers. Future opportunities in the auto industry will lie in developing, delivering and operating the artificial intelligence, IoT-connected devices, remote diagnostics and even exciting possibilities like 3D-printed car parts. Innovators are already seeing a window of opportunity opening up to participate in this exciting shift.
Dan Blacharski is founder of Ugly Dog Media and author of “Born in the Cloud Marketing: Transformative Strategies for the Next Generation of Cloud-Based Businesses“